State’s chosen mental health crisis provider for Acadiana folds after months of struggles

Two engraved metal signs show the names of businesses in a one-story building.
A sign is all that's left of The Ness Center, formerly located in a business park on the far south side of Lafayette, La., on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. (Note: Platinum Healthcare Staffing is not affiliated with the Ness Center.) Photo by Alena Maschke

A month after a proposed deal with Lafayette police fizzled, The Ness Center, a group approved by the Louisiana Department of Health to provide mental health crisis services in Acadiana, quietly closed its doors.

On Monday, the behavioral health provider, which also runs the Northlake Behavioral Health Hospital in Mandeville and is the state’s chosen partner for crisis response services in that region as well, announced in a press release that it had ceased operations at its Lafayette location, after a notification to local partners on Friday, prompting inquiries from The Current/The Advocate’s health reporting partnership.

The group cited an unsuccessful attempt to form a partnership with Lafayette Consolidated Government and the Lafayette Police Department, which fell through last month after pushback from other local providers, as the reason for its departure.

“We regret to inform our clients and stakeholders that, for reasons unbeknownst to The Ness
Center, the local government has temporarily suspended voting on mobile crisis services,” the center said in its press release, likely referencing a deferred vote to approve the proposed partnership between Ness and Lafayette police.

As a result, Ness said its “ability to continue operating in Region 4 has abruptly stopped. We have decided to cease operations in this area but remain committed to our mission and the individuals we serve.”

Region 4 encompasses eight Acadiana parishes and is one of the 10 regions of the state that function as administrative units for public health, emergency response and other state-sponsored services.

Louisiana was required to improve resources available to people suffering a mental health crisis, after the U.S. Department of Justice found that the state was overly reliant on nursing homes to treat patients with mental health issues and sued the state.

As a resolution to the Justice Department’s case, the state agreed that it would create and implement a plan to expand community-based services for the target population of adult Medicaid recipients, which it dubbed the Louisiana Crisis Response System.

Mobile crisis response services are one of four pillars of that system. The other three components are behavioral health crisis centers for walk-in services, ongoing crisis intervention that ensures patients remain in treatment and connected to services after a crisis, and short-term inpatient resources.

In addition to providing mobile crisis response services, which require mental health professionals to meet a person in crisis where they are located at the time, Ness was also selected as the state’s provider for two of the other elements of the overall response system starting in January 2023 — a walk-in clinic and ongoing support services for clients who recently suffered a mental health crisis.

However, the group struggled to fulfill the obligations of that partnership at its Lafayette-based facility. According to a presentation by LDH staff in August, the center had assisted only one Medicaid recipient at its Lafayette clinic and two more through its mobile crisis response over its seven months as the local provider.

During LDH’s presentation, representatives for other local providers cited the center’s location and hours of operation as possible reasons why its utilization may have been lagging. While the state’s system defines Behavioral Health Crisis Centers as operating 24/7, The Ness Center struggled to expand its hours of operation beyond regular business hours.

At the time, Northlake Behavioral Health System CEO Joe Buckley, who oversaw the Ness Center’s Lafayette operations, acknowledged that staffing up hadn’t been easy. “Staffing is a challenge for anybody doing this,” he said in an interview with The Current/The Acadiana Advocate in September.

Then there was the challenge of paying for the services, which were to be offered to a primarily low-income population. Medicaid reimbursements to providers tend to be lower than those offered by private insurance companies and some clients in crisis encountered by providers may have no insurance at all.

While Buckley said his company was expecting to cover some of the cost of serving indigent patients from other revenue streams within their system, he hoped that, eventually, the center would become self-sufficient.

Funding for local operations, Buckley explained, would primarily rely on clients using the services and Ness receiving reimbursements from their insurance or the federal government by way of its Medicaid program, as well as patients paying out of pocket.

“The goal is to make money,” he told The Current/The Acadiana Advocate in September. “If people follow the program and follow the model, the patients will come and we will serve them.”

Now, two months later, the Ness Center of Lafayette is no more. Buckley shared the group’s press release with The Current/The Acadiana Advocate, but did not respond to a request for an interview to explain why the group decided to cease all operations in the region.

Also unclear is who will replace them as the state’s partner of choice in Acadiana.

Neither LDH nor its subsidiary Office of Behavioral Health released a statement when Ness ceased operations last week. A spokesperson told The Current/The Acadiana Advocate that the department had been notified by the provider. A request for details on the reasons given for the departure or the next steps for selecting a new provider was not answered by print time.

Local providers were notified to no longer refer clients to the center by Brad Farmer, executive director of the local human services district Friday afternoon. Farmer, in turn, said he had been notified by the department earlier that week.

Once the state had selected Ness as the regional provider, Farmer had served as a conduit between the Mandeville-based nonprofit and local providers. “I tried to help them succeed and just wasn’t able to,” Farmer said. “It just never gained any traction.”

Efforts to create a local crisis response system began in response to Ness’s proposal to form a partnership with Lafayette PD, but are yet to produce a concrete plan.

The group’s first meeting wasn’t as well attended as some of the organizers had hoped, according to Lafayette City Councilmember Glenn Lazard, who had asked the vote on Ness’s contract with LCG be deferred when it came before the council in September.

“We didn’t accomplish as much as we wanted to accomplish,” Lazard said, noting that scheduling conflicts prevented some of the groups anticipated to be part of the coalition from attending.

Still, Lazard said he stands by his decision to defer the vote, even if it caused the Northshore provider to pull out. “I think we have more than sufficient resources left in the community to achieve the objective,” the councilman said of the plans to create a local crisis response system.

According to Lazard, LDH has been invited to participate in the group’s efforts, but was not present at its first meeting.